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«Analysts must take care to avoid globalist exaggerations when commenting on contemporary society» 


The rapid growth of global social relations is one of the principal developments of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Society of our times has acquired more pronounced global proportions: human beings are connected with one another on a planetary scale to degrees not previously known. Even deep in Amazonia, people are aware that “globalization affects us deeply, touching on all the big questions” (Vieira 2005).

This more global circumstance has raised numerous headline issues for public policy. How can we best address climate change, financial crises, infectious diseases, Internet communications, arms proliferation, transborder production chains, and intercultural accommodation, to name but a few crucial global challenges? As transplanetary interlinkages have become more significant in society, rules and regulatory processes have emerged to bring greater order, stability, predictability, and control over global affairs. Like any other realm of social life, global relations are governed.

However, what form does this governance take? Is regulation of intensified global relations to be conducted, on older patterns, through territorial nation-states? Or is globalization prompting a “scaling up” of the state from national to global levels with the creation of a world government? Or is increased globality the occasion for a return of rule by empire? Or is the intense globalization of current times instead a moment to revive decentered governance arrangements on a medieval pattern? Alternatively still, is a more global world to be governed through institutional configurations that history has not previously seen?

Whatever the institutional shape of global governance, what purpose should the rules serve? Is the aim to maximize material welfare in a global economy? Or is the objective to ensure global ecological integrity? Or is the goal to advance global social justice with an equitable distribution of resources across humanity as a whole? Or is the goal to secure peaceful settlement of global conflicts? Or is the target to foster democratic processes in a context of global citizenship? Or is the end to promote creativity and wisdom in global culture? Or is the guiding vision to ensure moral decency in a global community? Alternatively, if in fact the purpose of global governance encompasses several or even all of these core aims, which priorities should prevail when different objectives clash with one another? Which should take precedence in cases of incompatibility, say, between efficiency and sustainability; or between justice and peace; or between democracy and morality?

This, then, is the central concern of the present essay: how to govern a more global world in the early twenty-first century. Such a short paper cannot develop full answers, but it can clarify the broad issues. Concretely, what institutional frameworks are developing? Normatively, what value perspectives should guide these policy processes?

In responding to these questions, the first part of the discussion below briefly elaborates a conception of globality and globalization. This preliminary step of definition is necessary since ideas of the global are so multiple and divergent. To limit confusion it is therefore advisable for each commentator to specify the particular notion of globalization that informs their understanding.

The second part of the paper describes governance of the contemporary more global world in terms of a “polycentric” mode of regulation. Polycentrism refers here to governance by means of trans-scalar, trans-sectoral, diffuse, and overlapping institutional arrangements. In a polycentric framework, global public policy is generated through complex networks that comprise official, market, civil society, and hybrid agencies. These regulatory actors moreover operate across a mix of local, provincial, national, regional, and global jurisdictions. With so many institutions and measures involved, it can be difficult in conditions of polycentrism to identify the sources and trace the courses of governance in respect of global problems. This situation creates large difficulties of coordination and accountability, which largely explains why most governance of global affairs today suffers from major shortfalls in effectiveness and legitimacy.

The third part of this paper then explores the normative frameworks that might be brought to these polycentric governance processes. Different ideologies assign different relative priorities to the seven aforementioned values of economic productivity, ecological integrity, social justice, peace, democracy, cultural vibrancy, and morality. The aim in this concluding section is to identify some of the key political choices that every global citizen must take, rather than to prescribe what those choices should be.


As elaborated elsewhere (Scholte 2005, ch. 2), globalization is a diversely understood and deeply contested concept. For example, some commentators define globalization as a process of internationalization that brings a substantial growth of interactions and interdependencies between countries. Others conceive of globalization as liberalization and the reduction of state-imposed restrictions on cross-border movements (of goods, services, capital, and—in principle if not in practice—labor). Others identify globalization as universalization, whereby a host of objects and experiences are spread to all corners of humanity. Still others define globalization as deterritorialization, a process in which many social relations such as electronic finance and websites (partly) transcend the geography of place, distance and borders.

Globalization arguably can involve all four of these trends and more. What is wanted, therefore, is a conception that not only encompasses and integrates these related qualities, but at the same time also identifies the distinctive character of globalness. Such a notion is available if one defines globalization as the growth of transplanetary social connectivity. Globality is “transplanetary” in that it involves geographical spaces that can stretch to any location on the Earth. Globality is “social” in that it involves people living collectively—in this case on a planetary scale. Globality is “connectivity” in that it links conditions, experiences, and destinies—in this case at widely dispersed sites across the Earth. Globalization by this definition is a process whereby human society acquires more pronounced planetary dimensions.

Transplanetary social connectivity is manifested in a host of material circumstances. Through global communications, for instance, people exchange messages between any points on Earth. With global travel, people bodily move anywhere on the planet. Global organizations encompass interconnected operations scattered across several continents: e.g., global business corporations, global civil society associations, global governance institutions. Global laws apply certain norms and standards across the planet, including for example intellectual property rules and fair trade principles. Global production sees different stages of the creation of goods (clothing, electronics, etc.) performed at widely dispersed locations on the globe. Global markets involve the distribution and sale of certain commodities (e.g., natural gas and airline tickets) on a planetary scale. Global money forms (such as US dollars, Special Drawing Rights, and Visa credit cards) are used in economic transactions at all corners of the Earth. Global finance involves savings and credits circulating in planetary spaces. Global military affairs see armed forces operating across the Earth with, for example, intercontinental missiles, surveillance satellites, and long-range troop deployments. Global health issues arise in respect of various infectious diseases as well as global trade in drugs. Global ecological developments such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and depletion of stratospheric ozone affect relations between humanity and the rest of nature on a planetary scale.

In addition to these many material forms, globality also manifests itself ideationally. With glo-bal consciousness people are aware that they inhabit planetary realms, and their imaginations take them anywhere on Earth. A number of languages (e.g., English), discourses (e.g., ‘development’), symbols (e.g., the Nike insignia), and narratives (e.g., the soap opera) have global reach. Global spaces also host distinctive aesthetics such as fusion cuisine, computer-aided design, Diaspora literature, and hybrid music forms. Meanwhile various non-territorial identities and associated solidarities stretch across the planet, with affective bonds based on caste, clan, class, disability, faith, gender, generation, race, and sexuality.

Taking this multitude of material and ideational circumstances in sum, global connectivity figures pervasively and deeply in contemporary society. Most human beings in the early twenty-first century encounter at least several global connections every day. Indeed, many if not most social circumstances today involve a significant element of globality. We inhabit a more global world.

The historical periodization of globalization is a matter of considerable controversy. Many commentators rightly emphasize that transplanetary social relations are not new to the present era. Various earlier times also knew considerable intercontinental trade and finance, long-distance migration, world religions, transoceanic telegraph cables, global epidemics, and more. As always, nothing in human history is ever completely new.

However, contemporary greatly accelerated globalization—unfolding since roughly the middle of the twentieth century—has expanded transplanetary social connectivity to extents never previously witnessed. For one thing, the aggregate amount of all global links today dwarfs anything known before. In addition, the scope and diversity of types of transplanetary relations is far greater now than at any earlier time. The range of people who are intimately involved in global spaces is likewise much wider than ever, sweeping across all classes, countries, and cultures. Furthermore, individuals in today’s world tend to experience global connections much more often and much more intensely than before. The speed of transplanetary transactions has also reached historically unprecedented heights, to the point that many global communications are instantaneous. And the overall impacts of globality run far deeper in contemporary society. Thus, while global relations certainly extend back far in time, their number, range, frequency, intensity, velocity, and consequence are today qualitatively higher. It therefore seems no accident that talk of “globalization” has only arisen during the past fifty years, and not before. No language on Earth had this term before 1960, and today no major language is without an equivalent word.

In spite of this striking historical turn, analysts must take care to avoid globalist exaggerations when commenting on contemporary society. Localities, countries, and regions retain distinct importance in today’s more global world. Amidst the hugely expanded global flows, territorial geography continues to have far-reaching impacts on patterns of production, governance, and identity. Globalization has not erased other scales of social life. Rather, global domains interrelate in complex combinations with regional, country, and local realms. Hence, as will be described in more detail presently, globalization is not generating a centralized world government, but a decentralized multilayered governance apparatus.

Contemporary globalization has also been an uneven process. For one thing, the trend has not touched all people with the same intensity. Some locales (e.g., so-called “global cities”) and some social groups (e.g., corporate executives) have been very heavily globalized, while others such as pastoralists in the Sahel have been much less touched. Moreover, the benefits and harms of recent globalization have been unequally distributed. There have been gainers (including some big winners, for example, among fund managers) and losers (including some big casualties, for example, among AIDS sufferers).

Such differential consequences have made globalization a context of considerable political contention (Held and McGrew 2007). As will be elaborated in the final part of this essay, champions of prevailing approaches to globalization argue that current adversities and inequalities of a more global world are unavoidable and will be overcome in the medium to long term (Bhagwati 2004). Critics can be divided into “anti-globalization” and “alter-globalization” camps. The former assert that globalization is inherently damaging and that society should therefore be “de-globalized” with fewer transplanetary links (Bello 2004). In contrast, alter-globalization perspectives maintain that the problem is not transplanetary social connectivity per se, but the policies that are adopted towards a more global world. Different policies, they say, could make globalization work better. Some alter-globalization advocates prescribe relatively modest reforms (Stiglitz 2002), while others promote more ambitious agendas of change (Shiva 2005).

Yet, whatever political vision one embraces, it is clear that the speed and direction of globalization is largely a function of governance. To be sure, some deep and powerful historical forces have spurred the expansion of transplanetary spaces in contemporary society (Scholte 2005, ch. 4). However, these forces do not predetermine the precise nature and consequences of a more global world. Globalization develops in the particular ways that it does because of policy choices. To understand those policy choices it is necessary to examine how globalization is governed.

Polycentric governance

A social space is always governed. Whenever a given arena of society acquires importance, people develop rules and regulatory institutions to secure stability, predictability, order, and control within that realm. In earlier times, for example, the emergence of local settlements saw the creation of governance apparatuses such as village councils, city-states, baronies, and guilds. Later in history the growing importance of country domains was accompanied by the rise of national states. More recently, regionalization of economy and society has prompted the appearance of regulatory frameworks such as the European Union (EU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The same broad logic applies to globalization. As transplanetary connections have become more numerous, pervasive, and influential in society, particularly since the mid-twentieth century, governance arrangements have proliferated and grown in respect of global spaces. Countless laws, norms, standards, and principles are now in place to frame the way that global social relations are handled. Highly sophisticated rules have developed for global communications, global finance, global environmental issues, global arms control, and so on. As a result, society today has considerable global governance.

Clearly this global governance has not taken form as global government, in the sense of a centralized authority that has the final word on all issues across a jurisdiction that spans the entire planet. Some analysts, such as world federalists, have expected and indeed advocated that globalization should involve a “scaling up” of the sovereign state from national to planetary proportions (Davis 1984). However, a shift of this kind has not happened and shows little sign of occurring. Global affairs are today not regulated—and may well never be governed—through a world state.

Yet there is no reason why global governance should necessarily take shape as a state writ large. As already noted, human history has known many different modes of societal regulation. The unitary centralized sovereign state is only one possible form of governance, and measured against the broad sweep of history such an institution has not actually existed for very long. Indeed, in some territories a modern state has never been fully operational. Thus it should hardly be surprising that global governance would not adopt the form of a world state. But if not through a planetary government, how does contemporary governance of global affairs operate?

It is crucial to emphasize from the outset that global governance very much involves national states. Globalization and the territorial state have co-existed quite comfortably in relations of mutual support. Thus, on the one hand, states have greatly facilitated globalization, for instance, with liberalization of trade and investment flows. Concurrently, on the other hand, globalization has often reinforced the power of states, for example, through new surveillance technologies and intensified intergovernmental collaborations. Hence it is by no means the case, as some analysts have suggested, that globalization marks an end, or indeed even a decline, of the national state (Khan 1996; Strange 1996). Most territorial states are today as large and robust as ever, and it is hard to see how contemporary global challenges could be adequately addressed without them.

Yet it is also not the case that contemporary globalization has left the state unchanged. Due in good part to the rise of transplanetary social connectivity, the national territorial state of the early twenty-first century operates in some qualitatively different ways than its forebear of a century ago. Like anything else in history, states change over time, and globalization has been a key occasion for transformations of the state in the current era.

For one thing, national states in today’s more global world often deeply affect constituencies beyond their territorial realm. Thus, for example, the policies that a state adopts on global matters such as currency exchange or greenhouse emissions or infectious diseases or trade flows can and often do have far-reaching repercussions for people residing outside that state’s jurisdiction. Big states in particular can have profound impacts on the everyday lives of millions of people who never set foot on their territories. These affected persons moreover have no formal say in electing the “foreign” governments that deeply shape their livelihoods.

Although state electorates remain national, governments today often address their policies to global constituencies in addition to, and in some cases even more than, domestic audiences. For example, almost all states now adjust their laws on investment, taxation, and employment with a view to satisfying global capital as well as, or sometimes even ahead of, domestic business. In an age of instantaneous and pervasive transplanetary communications, most governments are also concerned to maintain a positive image in the influential global mass media (CNN, The Financial Times, etc.) alongside the national press. Many states today moreover take notable heed of global civil society actors such as human rights advocates, development NGOs, environmental groups, and religious associations. In these ways and more, states in the contemporary more global world serve more than national interests alone.

Globalization has also changed state behavior in terms of the growth of transgovernmental networks. In earlier times national states related with each other almost exclusively through foreign ministries and diplomatic services. However, deepened global connections have often induced other departments of government to develop their own intense direct trans-state collaboration, outside traditional diplomatic channels (Slaughter 2004). Thus, for example, key officials from central banks in different states maintain regular exchanges and coordination with one another on global financial matters. Global communications and travel also permit daily contacts and periodic face-to-face conferences among agricultural officials, education departments, environmental regulators, health ministries, immigration services, customs and excise offices, police forces, and many more parts of the state. Specific illustrations of transgovernmentalism include the Group of Eight (G8), the Competition Policy Network, the Human Security Network, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) now convenes several thousand transgovernmental committees and working groups per year. On many occasions in today’s more global world, civil servants in a given ministry have closer links with their counterparts in other states than they do with officials in other departments of their own state. In this way contemporary states have become so interlocked that it is often hard to say that a given public policy (e.g., an adjustment of interest rates or a disease prevention strategy) emanated from this or that individual government. Rather, the measures emerge from a transgovernmental network. To catalogue these proliferating regulations legal scholars have begun to develop a new field of “global administrative law,” as distinct from the traditional “international law” of customs and treaties (Kingsbury and Krisch 2006).

In many cases the needs for collaboration among states in a more global world has led to the establishment and subsequent expansion of permanent intergovernmental agencies. To note but three of the hundreds of such bodies that now operate, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) handles rules for global finance, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) facilitates cooperation among governments of countries with a Muslim majority population, and the United Nations (UN) addresses a full spectrum of global public policy issues. In contrast to transgovernmental networks, intergovernmental organizations have their own offices, budget, staff, and legal personality, separate from those of the participating states. Over time these institutions have acquired a relative autonomy from the states that first created them. Their influence on weaker member states can be especially pronounced, as the impact of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on governments in the global south illustrates.

In addition to promoting the development of intergovernmental institutions with membership drawn from multiple continents, globalization has since the middle of the twentieth century also encouraged an unprecedented proliferation and growth of regional governance agencies. Many national governments have seen advantage in approaching matters such as global trade, global finance, global migration, and the like on a regional basis through, for example, the EU, the Arab Monetary Fund (AMF), and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). In addition, recent decades have witnessed the emergence of a new multilateralism of regions, with interregional mechanisms such as the South Atlantic Peace and Cooperation Zone and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) (Hänggi, Roloff, and Rüland 2006). Like global-scale intergovernmental bodies, the more mature regional governance organizations have acquired a noteworthy degree of autonomy from their member states.

Other governance of global matters has developed through sub-state institutions. Thus local and provincial governments have taken steps in respect of, inter alia, global environmental concerns, global criminal networks, global trade, and global investment. A number of sub-state governments—especially in East Asia, Europe, and North America—have built up their own foreign affairs departments, in some cases including permanent offices abroad. Sub-state authorities have also institutionalized some of their own global collaborations, separately from national states, in organizations such as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF).

Drawing upon official agencies with global, regional, national, provincial, and local remits, contemporary governance of global affairs has a pronounced trans-scalar quality. Prior to the mid-twentieth century societal regulation derived almost exclusively from, and was executed predominantly through, national institutions. In contrast, public policy today generally involves multi-layered networks, where rules are formulated, administered and reviewed through combinations of supra-state, state and sub-state bodies. Thus governance of transplanetary relations generally involves: global institutions and links amongst them; regional and interregional apparatuses; national and transgovernmental agencies; local and translocal arrangements; and communications and collaborations across the different arenas. This situation has prompted many analysts to speak of “multi-level” regulation (Enderlein, Wälti, and Zürn forthcoming). However, the notion of “trans-scalar” governance perhaps better captures the dense interconnections across—and thus blurred lines between—the various jurisdictions.

The institutional complexity of global governance grows still further when its trans-sectoral qualities are considered. Many global affairs are today regulated in part outside the public sector, for instance, by business associations and/or civil society organizations. In this respect contemporary globalization has witnessed substantial privatization of governance (Cutler, Haufler, and Porter 1999; Graz and Nölke 2008). For example, various aspects of global finance are regulated by industry-based bodies such as the International Capital Market Association (ICMA), the Hedge Fund Standards Board (HFSB), and the Wolfsberg Group (for guidelines against money laundering). Self-regulation has also become widespread in respect of global trade and investment with voluntary codes of conduct for so-called “corporate social responsibility.” Important private-sector players in the governance of global communications include the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The fair trade movement is mainly governed through civil society-based institutions such as the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) and Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO). Other civil society initiatives operate nonofficial certification schemes to further global ecological sustainability, including the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). In all of these cases and more, nongovernmental actors have not waited for states to make global governance and have taken regulatory matters into their own hands.

In still other cases governance arrangements for global affairs have taken a hybrid form that combines public and private elements. Such institutions—sometimes called “multi-stakeholder forums”—are constructed as collaborations among official circles, market players and civil society actors. A few such constructions date back to the first half of the last century, including the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Berne Union (to regulate export credits), and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). However, hybrid global governance mechanisms have multiplied since the late 1990s. Among these new creations the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) regulates Internet protocols and domain names worldwide. ICANN is an incorporated business with considerable civil society involvement and oversight by the United States Department of Commerce. Meanwhile the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM) has a board with representatives of multilateral and bilateral donors, recipient governments, foundations, the business sector, Northern and Southern NGOs, and people living with the diseases. The Kimberley Process brings together governments, business, and civil society in joint efforts to stem trade in so-called “conflict diamonds.”

With its trans-scalar and trans-sectoral character, governance of global challenges is highly diffuse. For each global issue, regulatory initiatives occur at a multitude of sites: on and across global, regional, national, provincial, and local scales; and in and among official, commercial, and civil society sectors. Often the jurisdictions of the various regulatory arrangements overlap, and hierarchies among them are often not clear. For example, who rules the Internet: nation-states, the intergovernmental International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the private initiative W3C, or the multi-stakeholder forum ICANN? Many are involved, no one is in charge.

We might therefore speak of a transition, in the context of contemporary intense globalization, from a “statist” to a “polycentric” mode of governance (Scholte 2005, ch. 6). Statism is often also termed the “Westphalian” condition, with reference to the treaty of 1648 that articulated modern principles of sovereign statehood. In this circumstance, governance was highly centralized at one level (the national) and in one type of actor (the state). In contrast, the more global society of the twenty-first century is regulated in a more polycentric fashion, with many decision points and often-unclear hierarchies and poor communication amongst them. While the reigning metaphor for the statist mode of governance was a pyramid, with the central national government as its peak, the more appropriate analogy today would be a crown of olive leaves or a donut, where many elements are woven loosely together around a policy issue, but without a bonding and coordinating middle point.

Other analysts have preferred alternative vocabulary to describe the contemporary situation of governance through trans-scalar, trans-sectoral, diffuse, and overlapping arrangements. Instead of polycentrism, some commentators have spoken of a “new medievalism,” noting that the European Middle Ages also knew multiple layers of governance and a mix of both public and private authority (Akihiko 2002; Friedrichs 2004). Others have invoked labels such as “plurilateralism,” “networked governance,” “complex multilateralism,” “cosmocracy,” “complex sovereignty,” and “disaggregated world order” (Cerny 1993; Reinicke 1999–2000; O’Brien et al. 2000; Keane 2003; Slaughter 2004; Grande and Pauly 2005).

Yet whatever terminology one chooses to characterize post-statist governance, the condition clearly involves major challenges in regard to coordination, accountability and democracy. Problems of coordination arise in a polycentric condition when, as often occurs, multiple and widely dispersed regulatory actors address (parts of) a given global issue with little or no communication and consultation amongst each other. Difficulties around accountability arise when, as frequently transpires, deficient and/or harmful policies cannot be traced back, through dense polycentric networks, to clearly identifiable decision-takers. Troubles for democracy arise when, as regularly happens under current polycentric arrangements, affected people have little awareness of, participation in or control over the policy processes that shape their lives.

Towards the global good

Questions of democracy expand the discussion of governing a more global world from the descriptive issue of mapping regulatory processes to the normative issue of ensuring that the institutional arrangements advance the public good. In a word, it is important to ask not only what forms global governance takes, but also what purposes it should serve.

To assess whether or not global governance achieves positive results it is necessary to have a vision of the good society against which existing outcomes can be judged. Of course, people hold widely varying conceptions of what a good (more global) society should entail. In this vein liberalism, socialism, fascism, religious revivalism, radical feminism, deep ecology, and other perspectives hold highly diverse views of what governance should be for. Moreover, ideological predilections differ from one person to the next depending on their historical moment, cultural context, material conditions, psychological disposition and political struggles. Thus the following normative frame for evaluating global governance is not proffered as a definitive truth, but as a stimulus to reflection and debate.

On this particular prescriptive vision, governance of a more global world should aim to advance human livelihoods through the maximization of a set of eight primary values: namely, cultural vibrancy, democracy, distributive justice, ecological integrity, individual liberty, material well-being, moral decency, and solidarity. Taking these points briefly in turn, with cultural vibrancy good global governance would promote creative development and expression of diverse life-worlds, as well as mutually enhancing intercultural exposure and learning amongst them. With democracy people would, in a good more global society, take decisions that shape their common destiny collectively, through open deliberation, non-coercively, responsibly, and with equivalent possibilities for all affected to participate (Scholte 2008). With distributive justice the benefits and harms of globalization would be fairly allocated, avoiding arbitrary inequalities on lines of caste, class, country, culture, (dis)ability, gender, generation, race, sexuality, and urban/rural divides. With ecological integrity governance of a more global world would nurture conditions of nature in which human and other species can thrive. With individual liberty rules for transplanetary social relations would secure broad opportunities for each person to determine her/his own course in life. With material well-being governance of a more global world would deliver adequate nourishment, shelter, sanitation, literacy, health care, employment, and leisure for all persons. With moral decency globalization would be regulated in ways that recognized and respected the dignity and worth of each human being. With solidarity governance of today’s more global world would promote collective support, community, trust, and peace among people on planetary as well as regional, national, and local scales.

As indicated, these eight primary values are approached here as a set. In other words, they are regarded as mutually reinforcing aspects of a single package, rather than as discrete elements to be pursued separately and in some rank order. In this way the suggested vision differs from liberalism, which tends to elevate the value of individual freedom to first place and expect other values to be realized in its train. Similarly, this normative frame differs from socialism, which can concentrate on distributive justice to the neglect of other concerns. It also differs from environmentalism, which can pursue ecological integrity in a single-minded fashion, and from religious revivalism, which can place all focus on a particular reading of morality. Instead, the normative perspective adopted here suggests that a good (more global) society is achieved when eight primary values are pursued in holistic combination.

To be sure, in practice tensions may arise between these core values in certain contexts of global governance. For example, the pursuit of global economic welfare can in some cases sit uneasily with the promotion of global ecological integrity. Likewise, democracy sometimes involves delicate balances of majority rule, minority rights and individual liberty. Cultural diversity can on occasion pose challenges to one and anothermoral code. At such points of tension delicate trade-offs should be decided by the affected parties through peaceful deliberation.

Of course considerable ambiguity around these core values needs to be worked through when governing global affairs. For example, the ethics of constructive global interculturality are as yet poorly understood. Nor is it at all clear what shape democracy should take when applied to global governance (BGD 2009). Generally agreed precise criteria for fairness in global social life are lacking, and policy instruments to achieve progressive global redistribution are underdeveloped. Similarly, notions of “environmental sustainability,” “human rights,” and “global community” are far more easily pronounced than specified. Definitions of well-being in a global context are also anything but straightforward, with contrasting measures including the Human Development Index (HDI), Gross National Happiness (GNH), and the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). Moral codes, too, are often hazy and contested on the question of what counts as right conduct in global relations. In short, much more theoretical exploration and practical experimentation is required to develop viable normative frameworks to guide global social relations.

However, even ahead of such elaboration it is eminently clear that currently prevailing conditions of a more global world fall far short of the suggested eightfold frame of a good society. Contemporary global affairs are riven with cultural destruction, authoritarian rule, structural inequality, ecological damage, repression of liberty, material impoverishment, affronts to human dignity, and social disintegration. In general these “bads” exist on a global scale in ways and to degrees that would not be tolerated today on a local or national scale. For this reason so-called “alter-globalization movements” argue that other forms of transplanetary social connectivity are necessary—and possible (Fisher and Ponniah 2003).

Certainly so-called “neoliberalist” perspectives that dominated the theory and practice of global governance in the late twentieth century are now largely discredited. This general policy vision maintains that the principal if not sole purpose of global regulation is to promote individual liberty in a marketplace of planetary proportions. To that end neoliberalism prescribes a maximization of private initiative and a minimization of public intervention. The approach assumes—implicitly if not explicitly—that a globalized “free market” will on its own produce the greatest possible prosperity, democracy, environmental sustainability, and peace (Legrain 2004; Wolf 2004). The neoliberalist frame generally has little to say about distributive justice (“inequality is an unavoidable fact of life”), culture (“not a real issue”), solidarity (“people are driven by self-interest”), or morality (“a personal matter”).

By the late 1990s widespread disquiet had arisen about the actual consequences of neoliberalist approaches to global governance. For one thing these prescriptions were often applied selectively. For example, poor countries were enjoined to open their markets to global transactions, while rich countries often kept key sectors closed. Meanwhile measures to liberalize global capital flows were not accompanied with equivalent steps to liberalize global labor movements. Such inconsistencies encouraged skepticism that neoliberalism was in practice an ideological tool of the strong to promote their already advantaged interests.

In addition, two decades of what was widely called the “Washington Consensus” on neoliberalism often did not deliver on promises. In spite of pervasive “structural adjustment” and “flexibilization,” hundreds of millions of people across the world remained in abject poverty at the turn of the millennium. Concurrently, liberalized global markets brought enormous wealth to a small minority. Although multiparty elections of national legislatures did spread to more countries in the 1980s and 1990s, global governance as a whole had very weak democratic credentials. Far from providing sustainability, two decades of neoliberalism saw global ecological destruction reach unprecedented heights. Meanwhile neoliberalism promoted an ethos of “global competition” that arguably worked against solidarity, trust, and peace. Indeed, as these years passed more and more opponents of neoliberalism vented their unhappiness on the streets. Even many business leaders who had previously expounded “free market” solutions to planetary problems were by the year 2000 conceding that unadulterated neoliberalism was deficient as a formula for the good society in a more global world.

In response, some critics of neoliberalism have since the 1990s turned to neomercantilist reactions against liberalized global markets. These skeptics have argued that globalization is inherently incompatible with cultural vibrancy (“globalization is homogenization”), democracy (“globalization is imperialism”), distributive justice (“globalization increases inequality”), ecological integrity (“globalization destroys the environment”), individual liberty (“globalization is oppressive”), material well-being (“globalization causes poverty”), moral decency (“globalization shelters pedophiles and tax evaders”), and solidarity (“globalization undermines community”). If globalization is intrinsically bad, then the only answer, say the neomercantilists, is to restrict links with global spaces and concentrate on regional, national, and/or local spheres where a good society can be better realized. To this end neomercantilists advocate measures such as tight controls on global flows, preferences for domestic production, promotion of local currencies, celebration of national identities, and so on. Neomercantilist tendencies have been evident, for example, in failures since 1999 to obtain further global trade liberalization through the World Trade Organization (WTO). Neomercantilism has also underlain greater state restrictions on migration and initiatives to create regional monetary funds as alternatives to the IMF.

Neomercantilism has rightly highlighted major shortfalls of neoliberalism, but this reactive response has itself rested on at least four major flawed assumptions. One key neomercantilist misconception is that globalization is synonymous with liberalization, so that the only possible corrective is to “de-globalize” with measures to obstruct transplanetary flows. However, a number of other policy approaches to a more global world are in fact also available, as will be elaborated below. A second neomercantilist mistake is to presume that local, national, and regional spaces are inherently more conducive to a good society than global realms. Experience has demonstrated again and again that local, national, and regional arenas can be very unhappy places with their own authoritarianism, inequalities, pollutions, and violence. There is no necessary correlation between the geographical scale of society and the quality of life that it provides. A third fundamental error in neomercantilism is to assume that people necessarily define their communities in territorial terms. On the contrary for some people solidarities can arise as much (or even more) from bonds of age, caste, clan, class, disability, faith, gender, race, and sexuality that transcend localities, countries, and regions. Finally, neomercantilism rests on an untenable premise that the past fifty to sixty years of hugely expanded transplanetary social connectivity can be readily unraveled. Such a turn of history would require simultaneously: (a) to deny the deep global links of ecological changes, infectious diseases, and diasporas; (b) to end the capitalist relations that underpin global finance and global production chains; (c) to suppress digital and other technologies behind global communications; (d) to disassemble the intricate polycentric governance arrangements described above; and (e) to erase the global imaginations that now deeply infuse consciousness of society for much if not most of humanity. This comprehensive removal of existing social structures is so unlikely as to make veritable de-globalization a non-starter.

However, as already noted, reactive delinkage is not the only available alternative to neoliberalism as a policy frame for governing globalization. The options range much wider than the age-old binary debate of “free trade” versus “protectionism.” For example, many who previously championed neoliberalism have over the past decade shifted their views in the direction of what might be called a “global social market” paradigm. This “Post-” or “Augmented” Washington Consensus has argued that market-centered governance of globalization could in an amended form still deliver a good society (Stiglitz 1998; Rodrik 2001). Whereas neoliberalism suggests that “free markets” can work magic unaided, a global social market approach sanctions policy interventions by official, business and civil society circles to correct market failures and omissions. Steps in line with global social market thinking include anti-corruption initiatives, social safety nets for macroeconomic adjustment programs, the “decent work” agenda of the International Labour Organization (ILO), proactive encouragement of girls’ literacy, pollution charges, schemes for corporate social responsibility (CSR), stakeholder consultation, improved access to essential medicines for low-income countries, and ideas of “global public goods” more generally. In all of these cases public policy measures are “added on” to tame market-led globalization and steer it clear of its potentials to do harm.

Global social market approaches certainly have the advantage of confronting the realities of globalization rather than seeking with a neomercantilist ostrich reaction to deny deepened transplanetary links that for the foreseeable future are here to stay. Yet it is doubtful whether these modest reforms go far enough. Ten years after the proclamation of a “Post-Washington Consensus,” globalization is still more or less as wracked as before with ecological degradation, financial instability, economic crisis, inequality, oppression, armed violence, democratic deficits, and cultural sedation through mindless consumerism. It is hardly evident that market-based reforms such as carbon trading can by themselves provide a sufficient corrective to global warming. The laudable Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) launched in 2000 show no signs of being achieved with socially motivated market forces alone. Self-regulation through CSR has not adequately checked the inordinate global power of big capital. Large-scale promotion of “transparency” has not made global markets noticeably more stable and equitable.

Indeed, the financial collapse of 2008 has prompted many previous proponents of global social market policies to wonder whether any market-centered approach to global governance can deliver a good society. Can an economistic vision ever adequately encompass the cultural, ecological, political, and psychological dimensions of human livelihoods? Are there not inherent tensions between capitalism (with its logic of accumulation) and distributive justice that market forces cannot resolve, and on the contrary often exacerbate? Likewise, is there not an underlying inconsistency between ecological integrity and capitalism’s subordination of nature to surplus accumulation? Do liberty and democracy not entail more than freedom to choose in a global marketplace? Does global solidarity not involve more than an occasional charitable monetary donation to anonymous casualties?

Such searching questions have prompted some critics of market-centered globalization to adopt an anti-capitalist position (Bircham and Charlton 2001; Broad 2002; Kingsnorth 2003). For instance, global socialists have suggested that class-based emancipation struggles on a planetary scale could generate a post-capitalist mode of production based on distributive justice and solidarity. Radical feminists have similarly advocated reconstructing globalization on the basis of a care ethic (both towards “the other” and towards nature) and logics of mutual giving. Other critics—variously called poststructuralists, postmodernists, and postcolonialists—have advocated a reorientation of globalization away from economistic materialism towards greater attention to the cultural politics of identity and knowledge. Deep ecologists, animal liberation movements, and aboriginal epistemologies have in their several ways emphasized the need for a comprehensive overhaul of society-nature relations at the heart of today’s more global world. Religious revivalists have urged that a good (more global) society depends on a redirection of moral focus from the secular marketplace to humanity’s relations with the spiritual and the divine. However diverse these transformational visions of the good society may be, they all urge that globalization can and should be driven by forces other than capitalist markets.

These proposals for a full-scale reinvention of globalization have their own shortcomings, of course. For example, some such perspectives replace the economism of current market-centered global governance with a “culturalism,” an “ecologism,” or a “moralism” whose uni-dimensionality is arguably no less limiting. In addition, these transformational visions generally have yet to indicate in adequate detail both the nature of the alternative that they offer and the process by which the proposed change will be attained. Without such specifications it is difficult to assess carefully the attractions and detractions of the respective prescriptions. A sketchy and uncertain path is also unlikely to attract a large and lasting constituency. Indeed, the transformations envisioned for these post-capitalist futures may be so far-reaching as to be beyond realization within the next generation.

If market-centrism is unacceptable, and if transformational formulae are for the long run, a more precisely plotted and more practicable alternative for the medium term may lie in a paradigm of global social and ecological democracy. Such a normative framework for global governance builds upon Western social democracy, with its emphasis on maximizing justice within capitalism through collectively determined progressive redistribution (Held 2004). However, as envisioned here a global social and ecological democracy for the twenty-first century subjects traditional social democratic principles to an ecological reinterpretation and an intercultural renegotiation. The resulting policy frame is more holistic and has greater traction across the various world regions beyond the West.

With a priority concern fairly to share the fruits of globally operating capitalism, global social and ecological democracy would entail substantial, systematic, and firmly institutionalized measures of progressive redistribution of global resources. To promote greater equity the current order of market-centrism has offered little more than (limited) development aid, (slow) debt cancellation, and (belated) clampdowns on offshore finance. With such a laissez faire approach, the global Gini co-efficient has remained somewhere in the region of 65, higher than household inequality in every country on Earth except Namibia, and far higher than the range of 25–35 that prevails for most countries in Europe (Sutcliffe 2002; Milanovic 2005; CIA 2009). To achieve a more even transplanetary allocation of benefits and opportunities would require a substantial reconstruction of existing global rules (e.g., regarding credit access and intellectual property) and regulatory institutions (e.g., the IMF and the WTO). It would in addition demand the introduction of new governance agencies such as a Global Investment Agency (inter alia to apply competition policies on a planetary scale) and a Global Mobility Organization (to provide transparent and fair rules of intercontinental migration). Global distributive justice would also be furthered with the application of progressive taxes on global activities that have so far disproportionately benefited wealthy circles, such as currency transactions, securities trade, air travel, and Internet use. Revenue from these charges, collected and distributed through a Global Tax Authority, could go particularly towards welfare enhancement in currently disadvantaged quarters.

Needless to say, extreme care would be needed to ensure that this greater global distributive justice through expanded global regulatory institutions was achieved in democratic ways. Already current market-centered global governance suffers from severe shortfalls in democracy, and the introduction of new regulatory arrangements should be an occasion to correct this situation, not make it worse. Greater democracy in global governance could be partly achieved through better use of existing mechanisms for public participation and control. Thus improvements could be had in respect of information disclosure, parliamentary oversight, judicial processes, journalistic enquiry, and civil society engagement. Global democracy would also benefit from increased attention to citizen learning and public debate about globalization and its governance, so that affected people become better equipped to assess global circumstances and take more informed decisions on global policy matters. In addition, democratization of global governance would require substantial institutional reforms to ensure that all constituencies are equitably heard. On the one hand this would mean increased say in global policy processes for smaller and weaker countries. On the other hand it would also mean more voice for currently marginalized circles that constitute themselves on non-national and non-territorial lines, such as Dalits, disabled persons, faith groups, and peasants. Taken together, these various steps would amount to a far-reaching reconstruction of democracy for a more global world.

Yet ambitious reforms in the areas of distributive justice and democracy would not by themselves suffice to advance a good more global society in the decades to come. To remain standing, the stool of contemporary global governance needs a third ecological leg that has equal length and strength with the other two. National social democracy of the twentieth century must be reinvented as global social and ecological democracy for the twenty-first century. Such a reorientation would entail, for example, that every global public policy is thoroughly assessed on its implications for conditions of life on Earth: in the atmosphere, the biosphere, the geosphere, and the hydrosphere. Within national governments ecology ministries would rise to a par of priority and power with economy and finance departments. In place of the small and marginalized United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a Global Ecological Organization (GEO) would be created with equivalent stature to the IMF and the WTO. A GEO would inter alia facilitate global strategies on matters such as climate change and biodiversity loss. It would also elevate renewable energy to a top global public policy priority and oversee the global disposal of toxic wastes. Meanwhile various redistributive global taxes (e.g., on carbon emissions and trade in forest products) would likewise be operated with the enhancement of ecological integrity as a foremost concern.

A second headline quality that would distinguish global social and ecological democracy from its antecedents is constructive interculturality. The governance of global affairs developed to date has been heavily centered on Western life-worlds. These frames of knowledge and action certainly have much to commend them, but they far from exhaust the stores of human wisdom and innovation in regard to the eight primary values of a good society set out earlier. On the contrary, Western traditions arguably could learn much from other life-worlds, particularly on matters of ecological integrity, solidarity and intercultural ethics. Yet Western cultures have in the past often shown indifference to otherness, with an aversion even to acknowledge, let alone explore, diversity. Instead colonial and post-colonial Western intercultural politics have tended towards imperialistic suppressions of non-Western life-worlds. Old-style social democracy, too, carries unhappy historical baggage in respect of intercultural relations, having more or less assumed that the “advanced” West would lead the route to human progress and “less developed” others should submissively and gratefully follow.

Global social and ecological democracy would provide an occasion to alter this long-standing pattern of (often violent) Western unilateralism. In this alternative path of globalization, principles of social justice, ecological vibrancy, and democracy would evolve through intercultural practices marked by mutual recognition, dialogic communication, reciprocal learning, and respectful negotiation of differences. With such ethics of “pluriversality,” multiple life-worlds would peacefully cohabit in a single global social arena. This constructive interculturality would not only generate many sorely needed policy innovations, but also—by acknowledging, accommodating, and promoting diversity—secure greater legitimacy for global governance across the many affected communities. Thus, as envisioned here, global social and ecological democracy would entail a full-scale recalibration of identity politics, where cultural diversity shifts from being a source of division and fear to grounds for codependence with solidarity in a more global society.

To be sure, the above ideas and instruments of global social and ecological democracy require more elaboration than can be undertaken in the present short essay. In addition, much careful reflection is needed in respect of political strategies to realize the vision. Certainly this ambitious reform agenda would face considerable skepticism, if not determined opposition, particularly from powerfully placed circles that have drawn disproportionate benefit from the past decades of market-centered globalization. These advantaged groups would need to be persuaded that global social and ecological democracy offered them a better society as well. The debate will (and must) continue.


This essay has presented contemporary globalization as an epochal transformation of social geography in which transplanetary connections among people have become qualitatively more numerous, wide-ranging, frequent, speedy, intense, and influential than ever before. This far-reaching respatialization of social life has unfolded hand in hand with a major reconfiguration of governance: away from statist regulation and towards polycentric arrangements. Governing the more global world of the twenty-first century has raised in a new light age-old normative questions regarding the good society and how maximally to promote such core values as cultural vibrancy, democracy, distributive justice, ecological integrity, individual liberty, material well-being, moral decency, and solidarity.

Building effective and legitimate polycentric governance to further a good more global society has become an ever more urgent task. The cultural, ecological, economic, political, and psychological challenges of contemporary globalization run very deep, to the point of creating something akin to permanent and pervasive crisis. Global finance has fuelled continual economic implosions since the 1980s. Global diseases have provoked one panic after another over the same period. Global scares of food shortages, energy cut-offs, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism have further embedded insecurity into the heart of daily life. Global demographic trends and global ecological changes are simmering crises of the longer term.

It is therefore imperative to understand how a more global world can be governed. This task is both analytical (in terms of mapping how polycentric governance operates) and normative (in terms of elaborating value frames to guide global public policy). The further challenge is then to interlink analytical and normative knowledge in ways that promote effective and legitimate global governance practice. This chapter has suggested that none of the main policy paradigms tried to date—neoliberalism, neomercantilism, and the global social market—has come close to delivering a good society. More ambitious innovations of governance—in the direction of a global social and ecological democracy—are therefore required.

Cynics will of course dismiss such ambitions as “utopian” and “impracticable,” and certainly it would require a large-scale and extended political struggle to realize them. Yet who in the 1920s imagined that a comprehensive welfare state could be constructed by the 1940s? Who in the 1940s imagined that large-scale decolonization could occur across Asia and Africa by the 1960s? Who in the 1960s imagined that the Cold War could end in the 1980s? Who in the 1980s imagined that the Internet would be so central to society twenty years later? On this record the construction of global social and ecological democracy over the medium term might prove quite feasible once citizens are possessed of the need to act.


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